"It is true, and thus the question of whether it is sad or happy has no meaning whatever."
Bernhard Schlink

Science is best when discussed: leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments!!

Friday, September 29, 2006

Leaps and Bounds 

Life was pretty quiet on Earth 600 million years ago. But sometime between then and 500 millions years ago, something happened, and plant and animal life went through an astounding run of diversification and evolution - the Cambrian explosion. For as long as scientists have known about it, we've wondered why and how the explosion happened - it seems strange that things would be so stable and then just start changing so abruptly. Well, some researchers think they may have an answer: the collisions of Arabia, India, and Antarctica with other land masses at the time, and the mountains they raised, seem to have released great quantities of nutrient-rich sediments into the sea, giving life the materials it needed to evolve. This is a really fascinating idea, and if it pans out it could explain quite a bit.

In our own time, we have become quite concerned about fast-evolving pathogens, like the flu virus. In 1918, a mutant strain of the flu caused millions of deaths all across the world, and as H5N1 spreads today, health worker are worried that it could change, and instantly become another number-one-killer. So, researchers at the CDC reconstructed the deadly 1918 strain, and have been examining its effects. It seems that that flu is so deadly because it incites a major immune overreaction in hosts - their own systems kill them trying to get at the virus! Learning how 1918 flu works will hopefully help us predict, treat, and prevent future pandemics.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Making Babies, Questionable Projects, The Cool and The Obvious 

If you want to have twins, your best bet may be to be taller. Research suggests that taller women are more likely to give birth to twins or triplets than shorter women, likely due to their higher levels if IGF. This is a fascinating study, and the IGF idea seems to make sense, but I cannot for the life of me imagine why they included monozygotic twins in the final analysis. That makes me really doubt the whole result.

Another way to have more kids is to, well, have more kids. Which is exactly what Ethiopian women seem to be doing in response to improved local water supplies. An intervention designed to improve their lives by bringing tapped water in to villages has had the secondary effect of increasing birth rates and childhood malnutrition. The theory was/is that improving environmental conditions would lower the birth rate (though I'm not sure why this would be thought to be the case), but reality seems to be that you need other factors too. Watching all the kids starve doesn't stop people from having them. Maybe they only get 'abstinence-only sex ed'?

However many babies you want, you probably want them to be healthy. So, prospective fathers (and mothers too!) should probably avoid solvent chemicals for a good while before trying to conceive: a study of male painters and carpenters found higher birth defect rates among the offspring of painters, who had high levels of organic solvent exposure. So it seems that stuff really is bad for you!

After being born, kids may need surgery. Someone has decided that space will be a good place to do that in the future, and the French are already trying it out, albeit in a very odd way: doctors will attempt to remove a tumor from a man's arm during 20-second intervals of zero-G on Airbus' version of the Vomit Comet. Does this strike anyone else as an unrealistic approximation, or simply just a bad idea?

And the obvious: a panel of US citizens, comissioned by Congress to discuss what Americans want in a health care system, report that Americans want affordable, accessible, universal health care. Needless to say, Congress is already ignoring the report and claiming that it's unrealistic.

Similarly, an IOM panel has found that the US drug system is "broken" and that major reforms (especially within the FDA) are needed. For the response to this report, see above.

Finally, via BoingBoing, this may be the coolest thing I've seen all week.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Good and Funny 

Researchers have found that doxycycline, an inexpensive antibiotic, may prove a powerful weapon against Elephantiasis. The drug seems to kill adult parasites, as well as relive symptoms, which current treatments don't do. I'm not sure why this works, but it could be really good news.

And, because it's hilarious: this. NSFW!!!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Sweet Sunshine, Big Brother Wants to Know 

HIV is a very big deal. More than 25 years into the epidemic, people are still getting infected and dying at alarming rates, even in the US where there is (theoretically) access to effective prevention. In response to the growing problem of people who don't know they're infected the CDC has drafted new recommendations that people get tested during routine blood tests, without the informed consent or counseling they've previously required.

As much as I support wider and more effective HIV testing, I don't like the idea of it being done without proper consent and information. Especially since positive tests are reported to the Gub'men. Especially since, no matter how well-meaning Dr. Gerberding clearly is, there's still a major stigma against HIV positive folks, and that includes employment discrimination. So, I think this is a bit of a bad move.

Something else people keep getting despite knowing better is sunburns. A new compound, forskolin, mimics the effects of tanning (minus oxidative damage, we hope!) to give not only a healthy-looking tan, but also some protection from burning in mice. If it works, it could not only assist paley mcpalersons to tan, but also relieve the world of orange-tinted celebrities (a worthy goal).

And a new method of mosquito control: poisoning their food. While mosquitoes are most famous for blood-sucking, they feed on plant nectar for much of their calories, and Israeli scientists have had success at controlling populations by spraying mosquito-favored plants with pesticides. While I don't like the idea of more pesticide spraying at all, the potential to help control malaria is compelling to say the least.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

All Kinds of Cool Stuff 

As if you needed another reason to quit smoking: it seems that smoking increases the risk of getting HIV. Something else you know you should do, but may need help doing: it seems that eating fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring) once a week may reduce risk of kidney cancer. I love mackerel, so any excuse will do.

You probably also already know that the US spends more on lower-quality health care, but yet another study confirms it: the US ranks near the bottom on many quality measures, while on top for costs. And all those people talking about how the French system doesn't work? Well, actually they got top the marks for preventable death prevention.

And sometimes, you forget; Alzheimers Disease makes forgetting worse. And worse yet, some research suggests that AD may be self-propagating, like prion illnesses. I wonder about this in context of the amount of necrosis you see in AD brains - all that free lysozyme can do much damage, and I'm not sure why you need Beta-Amyloid to self-propagate. Interesting though.

Also cool, paleoanthropologists have unearthed an extraordinarily well-preserved 3-year-old A. afarensis (like 'Lucy') fossil in Ethiopia. A fantastic find!

As my brain continues to fry, I really wish I had the time or energy to really process all of this. So much cool stuff in just one week!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

New Lives: Quick-takes 

British scientists have gotten some 200 year-old seeds to sprout. I'm not sure why, but then why not? It's pretty cool.

It seems that nicotinamide injections may help prevent the worst stages of chronic MS...the results aren't too clear yet, but any hope is really good for this debilitating, incurable condition.

Speaking of debilitating diseases, a new antimalarial drug is in the works that promises to be at least, an effective and inexpensive compliment to artimesin. The new drug, XC11, works by inhibiting Plasmodium's replication, a novel target of action. Cool!

And DC's HIV rates are still off the charts, even as New York seems to have a growing number of men on the down-low (or in denial, whichever).

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Little Slow 

Seen on Emory's Clairmont campus, Atlanta.
Sometimes, you just need a nonsense regulation to brighten your night. I guess it's not any more random than other speed limits, but it just seems strange. My speedometer doesn't even get that precise.

Monday, September 18, 2006

GreaseIced Lightening 

NASA researchers have found that lightening - those powerfully hot bolts of electricity about which Ben Franklin wrote (in a paper available free here until November 2006) - is caused by ice crystals bumping together in clouds. Sadly, it takes millions of kilos of ice to do this, so fun freezer experiments may have to wait.

A couple of studies suggest that preventive diabetes treatment may help reduce disease incidence in at-risk populations. I'm always wary of this sort of thing, because it seems like we overmedicate so much as it is, we don't need yet another drug (with major side-effects) being tossed around like candy. Which is, let us be honest, what will happen if this use catches on. People don't want to change their lifestyles, they want to take a pill to make it OK.

On the good side, UK and Kenyan researchers have found that adding albumin to rehydration therapies makes young malaria victims much more likely to survive. Cool!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Roundup: Popeye poops on the Bionic Woman 

The FDA has recommended that people stop eating bagged fresh spinach for a while, as some of the product has been linked to E. coli infections. Meanwhile, a UK scientist is claiming that dosing crops with human feces makes a safe and effective fertilizer. These two reports do not necessarily make for an encouraging combination.

If you don't want your kids to get sick, get them that puppy (or kitten) they've been begging for: it seems that having pets may reduce the likelihood of getting sick by about 30 per cent. I want my puppies back!

On the other side of prevention, it seems that taking calcium supplements does not seem to improve bone density in kids. I wonder if that's because they're getting enough anyways?

Researchers offer hope for a reliable blood-test for TB, which could improve and ease screening, which would be great.

Two studies suggest that acupuncture is not only effective at treating back pain, but cost-effective as well. Good to hear.

Finally, a former Marine has been fitted with a bionic arm to replace one she lost in a motorcycle accident. She can control the limb with her thoughts alone - it responds to muscle movements in her chest and shoulder. This is ridiculously cool!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Data Doubts 

UK officials say that about 13% of young men in England have Chlamydia. Not really shocking, but kinda distressing considering how easily it can usually be treated. These sorts of numbers are always suspect though, given low reporting rates.

The celestial object which forced astronomers to strictly define a 'planet,' thus stripping Pluto its status as such, has been officially named Eris, after the goddess of chaos. The name seems appropriate, but I kinda liked its old name, Xena.

The 'obesity epidemic' is clearly happening, but lots of people blow it out of proportion. For instance, I simply do not believe that there are more overweight people on Earth than there are undernourished. For starters, there's some overlap between those groups, and secondly we have no good definitions for either.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Predictable Prevention, Strange Cures 

We all know that vitamins and green tea are good for us. For those still not entirely convinced, science keeps providing more evidence: a large, long-term study in Japan suggests that drinking lots of green tea every day may significantly reduce death by any cause, and by cardiovascular disease in particular. And, Duke researchers have found that taking 400 IU per day of vitamin D may reduce your risk of (deadly) pancreatic cancer. It's not clear if this is an effect of taking supplements, or if simply getting enough vitamin D in your diet would be sufficient.

Prevention is best, but sometimes people get sick, and we need to cure them. Depression is a tricky disease to treat, in that all patients respond differently to treatments, and comorbitites (having other diseases at the same time) are very common. One common comorbitity is smoking: depressed patients smoke more, making them more likely to get physically ill as well. It seems that one reason for this is that nicotine may lessen depression symptoms. A small number of nonsmoking depression patients were given nicotine patches, and showed more improvement than controls. The study is tiny, but could suggest big results later.

Another increasingly common (and debilitating) disease is adult-onset (type 2) diabetes. Research has already suggested a possible cure for Type 1 Diabetes using pancreatic autotransplantation, but Us researchers have now found that they may be able to cure Type 2 Diabetes in a similar way. This is very exciting news!

Sometimes a cure is there, but hard to take. Hepatits C is treated with a vicious combo of drugs - interferon and ribavirin - that cause such side effects that patients often don't comply, leaving their livers to be destroyed by the virus. Some patients from a UCSF center smoked pot during their treatments, and they were not only better able to comply, but it's possible that the pot even helped treatment! This is a bit of a no-brainer, mostly: we know pot's good for nausea, anorexia, and depression - if it wasn't for stupid politics, doctors would give it to these patients as a matter of course. But, it's nice to have (even) more evidence!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Topsy-turvy, and vodka. 

Some days everything just seems backwards, and in health science, relying on news headlines would have you radically altering your habits every other day based on new research results. A UK study suggests that wearing a bicycle helmet makes drivers less cautious of the biker - they pass helmeted ones at a slimmer distance than they pass unhelmeted ones. They also seem to give female riders more room. The data don't seem to speak directly to an increased likelihood of a collision, but that implication is clear. Still, I wouldn't go recommending bikers abandon helmets as a safety device!

You probably also thought that lifting weights was good for you. It may be, mostly, but new evidence suggests that it may increase intraocular pressure, leading to increased risk of glaucoma. This probably only really applies to serious muscleheads - you know, the kind who make all kinds of noise at the gym and lift way too much weight and have no necks - but still, blindness costs us all.

If working out was good, you probably thought that viruses - especially retroviruses - were bad. Not so! Evidence suggests that 'viral stowaways,' or old retroviruses long integrated into host DNA, can play critical roles not only in forming immunity to infectious forms, but also in assisting development. Cool!

Also interesting:
Paternal pheromones may supress development in daughters, meaning that girls who grow up without their dads seem to go through puberty earlier. This could help explain the recent trend of girls hitting puberty younger and younger. And hey, while your at it, school is making kids depressed. Duh.

Brown kelp may hold a promising new anti-obesity treatment. Another magic pill, yay!

Finally, the EU is trying to decide what constitutes vodka, and which is best. Brussels just loves regulation...

Monday, September 11, 2006

Bacteria, Virus, Gene 

Folk and clinical lore have long prescribed cranberry juice for urinary tract infections, but until recently its mechanisms were largely unknown. Worcester Polytechnic Institute scientists have been working on the problem, and in work published this year and presented yesterday at ACS, suggest that proanthocyanidins, a type of tannin found in cranberry juice, causes fimbrial compression, and changes bacterial cell shape from rod to sphere, making it difficult for them to adhere to surfaces and survive to cause infections. This research is cool not only for the basic point - how cranberry juice may be effective - but also in that it points out possibilities for future study on other infectious bacteria.

Also affecting the surface of bacterial cells, Seattle researchers have found evidence that the peptide sequence of proteins dictated by DNA may not be what finally gets constructed: it seems that the proteosomes can alter this order to finalize functional proteins. This is really surprising news, and could potentially rock all kinds of boats in the scientific world.

In diseases not caused by bacteria, research suggests that the avian flu H5N1 may be so lethal because it reproduces much better than other strains. Patients who died from the disease had much higher viral loads (and thus inflammatory responses) than did patients with non-lethal flus. Interesting...

The gene that causes cystic fibrosis, a debilitating (and usually fatal) genetic disease, may persist in the population by protecting, in heterozygotes, from tuberculosis. The researchers suggest that CF patients are deficient in a protein that TB needs to survive, and that this resistance explains why such a toxic gene is not weeded out by natural selection.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Puppyskin Coats? 

Seriously. Someone needs to give this veterinary clinic's PR people some lessons. The pun is such a stretch as to be nearly inscrutable, and also, "No." "No, No, No, No, No."

Friday, September 08, 2006

Sunscreen, Morons, Et Cetera. 

British researchers have formulated what they hope will be the Next Generation of Sunblocks - creams that will not only help prevent burns and skin cancer, but also help heal sunburns. The cream contains a chelating agent which corrals excess iron - released by sun-damaged cells, which causes oxidative damage - as well as traditional sunblock ingredients. This sounds good in theory, but I can't help but wonder how good an idea putting a chelator all over yourself could possibly be. Also, didn't I read recently about a rise in rickets due to over-sunblocking kids?

Speaking of over-parenting, MSNBC is reporting on how pushy/hypercompetetive parents are demanding that pediatricians put their kids on stimulants to get an edge in school. This isn't really news and it really isn't surprising, but it is slightly infuriating. These parents are clearly only concerned with how they look, in the eyes of their peers - having the valedictorian kid who got in to Harvard (or Yale, or whatever the Family School is) is more important than said kid's health now or later on. The problem is, it's really hard for doctors to keep saying no; these are the kinds of parents who'll sue for such things.

Maybe the mom's just don't hear the doctors' warnings: it seems that hormone replacement therapy including progestin is associated with accelerated hearing loss. This is a small study, and I would argue that it may not be too well controlled, but this could be a very interesting finding. Does progesterone affect calcium and potassium levels?

A formerly vegetative patient, who claims to have been aware but unable to respond while in that state, was studied by fMRI, and doctors claim she was able to respond to them with her thoughts. I'd like to buy this study a lot more than I do, but it just strikes me as a bit dubious.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Completely Uncalled For 

How do I have this much work already? I guess I said I was "ready to get going," or something. There seems to be some good news on the bird flu vaccine front, and also British researchers may have found the locus of semantic processing in the brain - it seems the anterior temporal lobe is critical for language and understanding words. Cool.

And this...well, it just made me laugh.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Foreboding Proteins: Look Away! 

So my first day of classes was yesterday. They all seem good, and despite an early SAS disaster, I'm pretty stoaked. Heart patients should also be excited, as yesterday the FDA approved the first fully implanted permanent artificial heart for use in patients. This is a huge step, which will hopefully extend and greatly improve the lives of patients with untreatable heart conditions.

Of course, it's also a major step in creating our future cyborg overlords, but hey. Look on the bright side.

It's harder to find a bright side for new evidence of nearly untreatable strains of TB. Researchers in the US, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa are finding strains of TB which are resistant to more than half of available treatments, granting the classification Extreme Drug Resistant (XDR) TB. This is really bad news. But, always look on the bright side: now that we're aware of the problem, we can step up research for new treatments, right?

Speaking of looking, don't look at me. At least not when you're thinking about what I'm saying. A study to be published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology will suggest that looking in the 'middle distance,' or staring off into space, helps people concentrate on numerical and arithmetic tasks. They tested 5-year olds as well as adults, so it would seem that the effect spans ages and educational levels.

Another study on study habits, this one from PNAS and woefully small (n = 14, which gives me zero confidence in the result), suggests that multi-tasking, such as watching TV or IM'ing, harms performance on learning tasks. But, el WaPo's characteristically condescending tone is not helpful: it derides kids who have study habits their parents don't like (listening to music, TV, etc.) and suggests that this study's evidence is much more convincing than it is. Similarly, the study was done on twenty-somethings, who did not necessarily grow up in such a media-rich environment. Previous studies have shown that kids today are better at multi-tasking than older generations are. Plus, the article's own example kids prove its point wrong: while the father "would rather have them study in silence," his preference is just that: his daughter studies while listening to music, and clearly does well in school (she's going to Columbia). If forced to study his way, she might not.

Then there's the study itself: the learning task was an object-sorting task (which involves both passive learning and motor activity), and instead of watching TV or IM'ing, subjects counted beeps while learning. Counting involves your working memory all the way through: you have to actively remember the last number in the beep sequence, and more likely involves the same (or more similar) brain processes as the learning task, whereas TV, radio, or IM may involve very different ones.

And finally, looking better. Researchers have found that peptide YY, released when we eat protein-containing foods, makes us feel more full and leads to weight loss. This explains some of the beneficial effects of the Atkins diet, but still doesn't recommend it. Not even a little.

PS: Foreboding. Last night I had a dream where I went to watch an execution, and as the ashes of the condemned were flung like confetti to the cheering mob, I was in back, watching a giant golden-colored wild horse be broken. My dream-companion said that he thought it was more beautiful untamed, and I agreed. Perhaps not the best dream to have my second morning of grad school?

Sunday, September 03, 2006


We all want to be strong and fit, but working out that much is a drag. And if you get sick or injured, the recovery makes you lose all that ground. This is how a new set of drugs, currently under development by various researchers, will be abused. Scientists are looking at ways to prevent muscle wasting, so that bedridden patients, astronauts, and the elderly can get back to life when they go home. It's a really cool and interesting idea, but abuse by athletes and lazy gym goers is rather inevitable.

On the other end of being healthy, it seems that eating lots of cured meats could harm your lungs: nitrogen compounds used in the curing process may be causing oxidative stress, reducing lungs' elasticity. This is an interesting find, but I'm not about to stop eating lunch meats over it.

Finally, researchers have found a gene - DUF1220, whose function is unknown - of which we humans have 212 copies, chimps have 37, and rats have one. This difference in copy number may have to do with how and why our brains develop differently than the other animals' do...and perhaps shed light on how we became human. Very cool.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Hot Air 

A reasonably large study of US veterans, followed for eight years and tested on the Cook-Medley scale for Hostility and a lung power test, suggests that crotchety old men, famous for yelling and hollering, seem to be in fact less fit to do so than their less-angry peers.

On the other hand, there is good news in the air for HIV vaccine researchers: a Swedish study has found that air-pressure injection of a dual HIV vaccine (HIV DNA and a viral gene host) induced very promising immune responses in humans. Could a vaccine be on the way? Anything's possible, but I'm afraid I'm not very hopeful.

More hopeful still is news that gene therapy seems to have cured two men of skin cancer. But with such a low rate of success (2/17), it's unclear how real this is.

In prevention news, it seems that obese men are less fertile, and that drinking fruit juice may help prevent Alzheimer's. Does this mean that the next generation will be skinnier, and do Greyhounds count? (Probably: "no" and "sortof.")

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